You can take the girl out of the 70s… Or so says Nigella Lawson, I think when she was expounding on the virtues of prawn cocktail – and what could possibly be wrong with that?
My first ever slightly grown-up date, at the age of 16 and a quarter, involved being picked up in a car borrowed from a parent and being taken to the dizzy heights of The Buttery at the De Vere Hotel in Coventry. In 1979, it was the swankiest place in town. Obviously we will gloss over the other, not-so-swanky, offenders. To be honest, I am not sure how much we’ve actually moved on since then.
I think The Buttery was pretty much like a brightly-lit cafeteria. I don’t think there were tablecloths involved, but I was a newbie catering student and this was dinner Mecca. We definitely had more than one knife and fork to grapple with, there was an extensive menu of fish and grills, and there was a man with a notepad, barely out of short trousers himself, wanting my proper grown-up, thought-through selection. Eeek.
I’ve never been a big red meat eater, so I plumped for the obvious choice – chicken. Except, this was Chicken Maryland – poultry as Britain had never previously known it. Breadcrumbed chicken leg, fried in some indiscernible fat for nowhere near long enough, and served with a sweetcorn fritter (good) and a similarly breadcrumbed fried banana (not so good). There could have been tinned pineapple involved – I can’t (or don’t want to) remember.
I remember the chicken leg being bloody on the joint and, even with my novice cooking skills, knowing that this was DEFINITELY NOT A GOOD THING. The banana was utterly vile. Having grown bananas here for the last 13 years, I can honestly give or take them at any stage of their existence, but fried is definitely not a state in which they are at their best. However, the sweetcorn fritters…
Shall we just say that they probably saved me from immediate starvation (never far away when you are 16 and have been marauding around a catering kitchen since 8am) and gave me something to stab at randomly with one of my multiple sets of cutlery, while simultaneously trying to avoid an undignified and agonising death via salmonella. I am not sure I was ever asked to dinner again by the same date, but at least I didn’t die of hunger on the way.
Tonight I made a beef chilli for our post-walk Sunday supper, mainly because I got over-excited in the supermarket a couple of weeks ago, when I saw dried black beans for the first time since we came to live here. They’ve since been grinning at me from the shelf every time I’ve opened the cupboard, so I finally got around to soaking and cooking them yesterday. It seemed only correct to serve the chilli with a punchy guacamole and the perfect excuse to fry up some sweetcorn fritters. I honestly think this is the first and only time I have ever made them, but I shall definitely be making them again.
I didn’t follow a recipe, I just mixed up an American-style thick pancake batter and threw in the rest of the ingredients. I jazzed it up with some coriander leaves, a few chopped spring onions and plenty of chilli flakes, plus a very generous seasoning of black pepper.
Along the way, I suffered an industrial injury. Or ‘alternative facts’ may describe it as an occupational hazard. Or I could just be honest and say that I couldn’t resist hoovering up a little bit of fritter that had escaped into the hot oil and now I have a flipping great blister on my lower lip to prove it. Aged nearly 54, worked in kitchens for quite a bit of my life and only now discovering that very hot fat and lower lip are not necessarily good friends.
Do try the fritters though, they are utterly delicious and would make a great dish in their own right with some salad and a bit of bread, though they were perfect with the chilli. They would also be good for breakfast, possibly with some grilled bacon or ham. And the best bit is that they take about five minutes to mix up and even less time than that to fry. I made mine ahead, as I am not a fan of frying anything at the last minute, and I just re-heated them in a hot oven for about five minutes before we ate. You could definitely make them the day before if you wanted to – I had planned to do that, but then the rest of yesterday got in the way.
Sweetcorn fritters (Maryland style)
Makes 8 pancakes
100g self-raising flour (or plain flour plus a teaspoon of baking powder)
75 ml milk
One spring onion, finely chopped
A generous pinch of chilli flakes
A handful of coriander leaves, chopped
1 tin of sweetcorn – mine was 220g, doesn’t need to be exact
Salt and pepper
Oil for frying
In a bowl large enough to take all of the ingredients, mix the flour, egg and milk until smooth.
Stir in the onion, coriander, chilli and sweetcorn, and season generously with salt and pepper.
Heat a little oil in a wide, shallow frying pan over a medium heat. Once the oil is hot, use a dessert spoon to measure the batter into the frying pan. Only fry two or three fritters at a time, so that the pan is not crowded.
Once the fritters have set on the bottom (you will see that the edges are starting to brown), flip the fritters over and fry on the other side.
Lift on to kitchen paper to soak up any excess fat, then keep warm in the oven while you fry the others.
Delicious served with guacamole or sour cream. If you want to make the fritters ahead, leave them in a cool place, covered, until ready to serve. Re-heat in a 170C oven for about 7 minutes.